West Singhbhum (Jharkhand) (IANS/ 101Reporters) It all began in 2002 when Sonaram Biruli lodged a complaint against Narayan Biruli for grabbing his land in Tantnagar village in West Singhbhum district. After doing the rounds of Chaibasa civil court for two decades, the case was transferred to the manki-munda nyay panch (tribal custom court), the one and only such facility operational anywhere in Jharkhand.
The most notable outcome of this exercise was that the nyay panch, which functions from the sub-divisional officer's complex in Chaibasa, managed to settle the case in record time. It was the first case to be assigned to the nyay panch from the Court of Deputy Commissioner (DC court) in March last year. The matter was resolved in favour of the plaintiff this January with only three hearings preceding the preparation of panchat (order), which was sent to the DC court for issue of formal judgment.
The nyay panch has its origins among the tribal communities of Chaibasa-headquartered Kolhan division, which included West and East Singhbhum and Seraikela Kharsawan districts. Under British rule, mankis functioned as a quasi-police forum of tribal panchayat heads at the panchayat level. Similarly, the village heads who worked as a quasi-judicial forum with an additional role of revenue collection formed the mundas.
After suppressing the Kol rebellion (1831-32) through military intervention, Sir Thomas Wilkinson was in 1834 anointed the head of the newly formed South West Frontier Agency (SWFA) to govern Chhotanagpur, which had seen tribal movements. When Ho tribals in more areas put up a show of resistance, the East India Company invaded their villages in 1837 and forced mundas and mankis to surrender. The same year, Wilkinson declared the formation of Kolhan Separate Estate by adding the captured Ho villages to the SWFA.
The Wilkinson Rule, framed in 1834 for the SWFA's governance, came into effect in Kolhan region also, with an assistant political agent appointed to ensure smooth governance. This responsibility was later inherited by the Deputy Commissioner (DC). The Kolhan superintendent post, which was created to assist the DC, is similar to the role of today's sub-divisional officer (SDO).
To get people in his favour, Wilkinson had allowed manki-munda self-governance, wherein the former dealt with criminal cases and latter executed civil cases. The Jharkhand government has recognised this traditional judicial system in February 2021 by bestowing it the power to work on three fronts -- revenue-related activities such as tax collection and reporting of land purchase and sale, maintaining law and order, and settlement of land disputes.
As many as 26 pirs (groups of villages) and three zones (Kolhan North, Kolhan South and Forest Area) are present in 18 blocks of West Singhbhum district. Mankis, mundas and dakuas (helpers of mundas) function under the pirs, earning a monthly honorarium of Rs 3,000, Rs 2,000 and Rs 1,000, respectively, from the state home department. In all, there are 91 mankis and 1,247 mundas and dakuas each.
How it works
"The cases do not come to the nyay panch directly. The complaints are lodged with the SDO, DC court, or additional DC (ADC) court, from where they are transferred to the custom court. After the hearings, the decision is sent back for issue of a formal decree," explains Manki Munda Sangh general secretary Pratap Singh Kalonjia.
"By and large, people accept the decision of the village heads because of their place in society. It is quite possible that they are dissatisfied with the civil court judgment, but never with that from the custom court," SDO Shashindra Kumar Badaik tells 101Reporters.
Cheap, accessible and quick justice is possible through the nyay panch system. "It takes about 20 to 40 years for a case to be even heard in the civil court," says Kolhan Podahat Manki Munda Sangh president Ganesh Patpingua (50).
The transfer of a case to the tribal court is accompanied by a letter, which contains necessary guidelines. So far, 21 cases have come up for hearing at the custom court. The cases of non-tribals can be heard, the only condition being that they should belong to the area coming under the Wilkinson Rule.
Cases valued up to Rs 5,000 are filed with the SDO, whereas those above Rs 5,000 are examined by the DC or ADC court. The suit value was fixed in 1977 and has not been changed since then.
"There is a proposal to increase the scope of cases reaching the SDO to Rs 50,000. Local MLA Deepak Birua has held a discussion in this regard with Jharkhand's Advocate General," informs lawyer Mahendra Doraiburu, who serves as a legal adviser to the nyay panch.
Meanwhile, Birua tells 101Reporters that the topic of strengthening the nyay panch was discussed during a review meeting convened by Chief Minister Hemant Soren in Chaibasa last month. He confirms that there is a proposal to modify the case value.
The plaintiff and defendant choose the manki or munda of their choice to present their side. The justice convener, who is elected mutually by the representatives of both the plaintiff and defendant, passes the verdict. Mostly mankis are chosen as conveners as they are the senior members. However, there is no bar on making a munda the convener.
If a side is unhappy with the jury members, two more are selected to make it a bench of five. The plaintiff and defendant are given the chance to choose one more member each in such cases to maintain impartiality.
The roles of mankis and mundas are passed from one generation to the next. If a munda does not have a son or if a new one needs to be selected, the manki of that area does that. Daughters are not selected for the post. If a manki needs to be selected, mundas of that area hold discussions and reach a decision.
"The custom court functions in a formal way ? there is a small court fee and an official stamp. The only difference is that here lawyers are not defending the parties involved," says Doraiburu.
The nyay panch has a 10-member advisory committee consisting of prominent people of the tribal society. Some of these members can be from other communities too. Likewise, mankis and mundas can also be non-tribals, though the majority of the people occupying these positions are tribals.
Only the employees appointed on behalf of the government such as accountants, assistant accountants and orderlies in the court get salaries. Once the dispute is settled, the plaintiffs and defendants can pay any amount to the jurors if they wish to do so.
"There is a process to ensure that everyone is satisfied with the judgment. If the plaintiff and defendant are not satisfied with the decision of the nyay panch, an appeal can be made in the DC court. If they are still dissatisfied, they can approach the High Court," says Doraiburu. In the first case, the judgment was in favour of Sonaram, and both parties wholeheartedly accepted the decision.
The mankis and mundas are held to a higher standard in the community. Bad behaviour is not acceptable and the sangh keeps a check on each other. The Manki Munda Sangh meets on the 13th of every month at Mangla Haat in Chaibasa to keep everyone updated about work. Mankis and mundas from different remote areas of the district participate and exchange ideas.
Further measures to strengthen the system are on the anvil. "A file in this regard has been sent from the Chief Minister's Office for the final opinion of the Kohlan commissioner, where it is pending," an official concerned told 101Reporters.